Almost everyone writes emails for work these days and many companies encourage employees to use social media as part of brand awareness.
But given they are not professional copywriters, are staff members doing a good enough job when a badly-written email, tweet or other corporate missive can risk turning away potential business?
Righting writing wrongs
When average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of what they’re reading. At 43 words, that drops to less than 10%.
A professional copywriter will use simple, plain English that cuts reading times significantly. What better way of communicating with people in a time-hungry world?
But you don’t need to be a trained copywriter, freelance or otherwise, to write a decent work email. All you need is a straight-forward writing style and a basic awareness of the common grammatical errors that disrupt word flow.
Mistakes are easy to avoid if you know what to look for. In no particular order, here’s a list of the most common:
Incorrect use Of capital Letters
In the corporate world incorrect use of capital letters can be seen everywhere. And it’s the opinion of this freelance London copywriter that it’s caused by people’s insecurities. When unsure, they capitalise.
Workplace politics also result in many letters appearing in upper-case when they shouldn’t. I was once asked to write the names of industries in a press release with the first letter capitalised. When I pointed out that this was grammatically incorrect, I was told it may ‘upset stakeholders’ if they were to see their sector written all in lower case. So sometimes sentences looked like this:
- The economic downturn has affected the Retail sector badly.
- Training courses for staff in Manufacturing are expensive.
And this is wrong.
Use of capital letters with job titles
Most people write job titles in upper and lower case (capitals and non-capitals).
This is also unnecessary unless the title comes immediately before someone’s name. If the title comes after the name, it should be in lower case.
- The Chief Executive Michael Davis suffers acute narcissistic personality disorder.
- Michael Davis, the chief executive, suffers acute narcissistic personality disorder.
Again, pesky workplace politics play a big part in whether job titles start with capital letters when they appear in the middle of sentences. They shouldn’t but so often do.
With grammar, do sweat the small stuff
Tiny things like apostrophes, commas and colons can significantly change the meaning of a sentence.
Consider this: An English teacher wrote, ‘A woman without her man is nothing’ on the whiteboard and asked students to punctuate it correctly.
All the males in the class wrote: ‘A woman, without her man, is nothing.’
All the females wrote: ‘A woman: without her, man is nothing.’
Incorrect use of apostrophes
This little mark must be the most misunderstood and misused piece of punctuation in the English language.
Apostrophes with plurals: A common error is where an apostrophe is inserted before the letter s in plural words or in signs like that shown in the picture.
- The house’s along that row are old
- They all have big garden’s
- The boy’s love swimming.
In normal plurals that end in the letter s, an apostrophe is not needed. Let plurals be plurals.
This mistake is so common there’s a phrase for it: ‘the greengrocer’s apostrophe’.
Whoever could have known apostrophe misuse could tarnish a whole profession in such a way?
With plurals, apostrophes are only used when indicating possession.
Apostrophes indicating possession: Apostrophes are most usually used to indicate ‘possession’ – that is someone or something is owned (possessed) by someone or something else.
Eg, This is Sandy’s house (the house is owned/possessed by Sandy).
Singular possession: When only one person possesses it the apostrophe comes before the letter s.
Eg, The clown’s nose was red (the clown possesses the nose).
Plural possession: When two or more people possess something, the apostrophe comes after the letter s.
Eg, The clowns’ noses were red (the clowns – a group of them – possess the noses).
To complicate matters further (this is the English language after all) if the plural version of a word doesn’t end with the letter s as in the word children you should treat it as if it’s a singular word.
Eg, This is the children’s room (the room belongs to the children).
Apostrophes are also used when two words are shortened (contracted).
In this case, the apostrophe goes between the two words and makes them shorter by omitting letters.
- do not = don’t
- could not = couldn’t
- I will = I’ll
- I am = I’m
In formal business correspondence it’s better not to use contractions. It’s grammatically correct to stick to the more formal use of two words.
But they can be used in less formal communications like this blog and in some publicity material.
It’s and its: incorrect use of apostrophes with ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ is widespread. Here’s the rule:
It’s (with apostrophe) = is short for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’.
Eg, ‘It’s Anna’s house’ or ‘it’s been snowing’.
Its (with no apostrophe) is a possessive word. It means something belongs to something that’s neutral (not a person with a gender).
Eg, Anna’s house (possessed by Anna) has its roof covered by scaffolding (the roof is possessed by the house).
And remember, if you’re unsure, check your organisation’s style guide or ask your manager.